Death and a Miracle: Lessons from a Classic Movie

Journey to Italy telling the story of a married couple on the brink of divorce and showing what brings them back together.

(photo: YouTube)

Sometimes a movie, or another piece of art, created by someone we may view as terribly flawed, can still have a distinctively religious and spiritual impact. I recently watched a movie made by Roberto Rossellini starring Ingrid Bergman and George SandersJourney to Italy telling the story of a married couple on the brink of divorce and showing what brings them back together. This movie provides a perfect example.

Ingrid Bergman is considered one of the greatest movie actresses of the 20th century, winning many awards and accolades; she starred in Casablanca, The Bells of St. Mary’s, Joan of Arc, and three movies directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Her career was thriving when she had an affair with Roberto Rossellini and left her husband and daughter. The scandal led to her denunciation on the floor of the United States Senate and exile from Hollywood. Her image—the screen image—of wholesomeness and transcendent beauty was destroyed by the horror of a combative divorce with custody battles in the headlines.

Rossellini and Bergman married and made movies together in Italy; he is known as one of the great auteur directors, with the distinctive style of leading his actors to improvise as they depict their characters. His style is called neo-realism and among his films are StromboliThe Flowers of Saint Francis, and Rome, Open City. He and Bergman eventually divorced after he had an affair with a married screenwriter in India; the Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, Gandhi’s friend and colleague, asked him to leave India because of the scandal.


A Marriage in Trouble

Alex and Katherine Joyce (portrayed by George Sanders and Ingrid Bergman) are an English couple driving through the Italian countryside on their way to Naples. Alex asks, “Where are we?” and she responds, “I don’t know, exactly.” They have been married eight years, and she is trying to combine a vacation together with a business trip. He is a successful businessman; they are materially well-off; their marriage is in trouble. They’ve inherited a villa outside of Naples and want to sell it.

Arriving in Naples, they check in to a hotel and bicker about being together. When they go to the hotel bar, they meet friends and clearly Alex pays more attention to one of the ladies than to his wife. After they arrive at the villa, their separation and the bickering when they are together continue. Katherine alludes to a young poet, Charles Lewington, who died after fighting in Italy during World War II and Alex mocks him and her regard for him as romantic foolishness. They are strangely jealous of each other and they compare notes on which of them is happiest without the other.

While Katherine explores artistic and historic Naples, Alex goes to the Isle of Capri and spends time with several young women, even tempting himself with the sight of a prostitute. Their estrangement is even more manifest when Alex finally returns to the villa. While waiting for his return, Katherine plays solitaire.


Prayer for the Dead

The next morning, she visits the Fontanelle Cemetery church with the caretaker’s wife, who tries to explain the Catholic practice of prayer for the dead. The cemetery is an ossuary, with stacks of the anonymous bones of 16th century plague victims. As Natalie, the caretaker’s wife explains, people visit the cemetery to pray for the dead, adopting one of the unknown dead, bringing flowers, lighting candles, and having pity on their souls, forgotten for centuries.

The theological explanation of Purgatory and prayer for the dead relies upon emotion and comfort to the living, but the theme of death and remembering the dead, introduced by Katherine’s thoughts of Lewington, drives the plot of the rest of the movie. Rossellini even adds a funeral procession, complete with black plumed horses and a hearse, with people on the sidewalks commenting on how good and generous the deceased man was, to drive home the point.


Babies and Miracles

As Katherine and Natalie drive to the cemetery church, they notice all the pregnant women on the streets; Katherine comments on all the beautiful children. Natalie genuflects as they enter the church, lights a candle, and prays at an altar while Katherine looks around at the stacks of skulls. Natalie explains that she prays for her brother who died during World War II; he is buried in Greece, so it comforts her to pray for him at Fontanelle. She is also praying for a blessing: a baby. Life and death are balanced in these scenes.

When Katherine and Natalie return to the villa, they meet Alex, who soon brusquely declares that he and Katherine should get a divorce. At that moment, Tony, Natalie’s husband, insists that they must return with him to Pompeii, where he believes they will find the “remains” of someone who was buried under the ash when Mount Vesuvius erupted in A.D. 79. The plaster of Paris is injected in the hollow area under the soil and the forms of a man and a woman are revealed. Tony declares, "They found death together—united." 

This is too much for Katherine and she wants to leave. “Life is so short,” she exclaims in the ruins of Pompeii. As they drive back to Naples, Alex congratulates her on the fact that she never wanted to have a child, because their divorce would be so much more complicated if they had one. To him this is a business transaction that he will gladly handle while she enjoys herself in Naples.

Driving through Naples, their car is stopped by a religious procession. When a miracle healing occurs, the crowd surges forward and Katherine is swept along, calling for Alex to save her. He embraces her and realizes that they can’t go on tearing each other apart. She demands “Tell me that you love me!” and he responds "Well, if I do, will you promise not to take advantage of me?” The film ends after they kiss for the first time in the entire movie, and the camera pulls back to show the religious procession.


Catholic Capital

Although Rossellini was not a practicing Catholic, and his actions demonstrated a rejection of Church teaching on marriage, it’s clear from the movie that his Catholic past provided him with the imagery to provide hope to Alex and Katherine. The faith of the people of Naples—having babies, loving their children, burying their dead, praying for the dead, and processing in the streets—is the living force that encourages Alex and Katherine to remember their love, which they thought dead and buried in the ruins of the past.

(Note that the movie is available in English and in Italian, dubbed by other actors. I watched the Italian version and missed George Sander’s inimitable voice.)